The Evolution of “Moneyball”: 20 Years Later

By Steven Zunich 

With the 2021 Major League Baseball season coming to an end, I just watched the 2011 Brad Pitt film “Moneyball” again. Based on the book of the same name, Moneyball is an excellent film about an incredible shift in how baseball is conducted. This seismic statistical and economic transformation began to take place with the Oakland Athletics in 2001-2002. In terms of the business of baseball, your “product” is the team of players you put out on the field. Over a hundred years, how players were evaluated went through a radical transformation at the beginning of the 21st century—the given name of this change; Moneyball.   

Moneyball is a term describing baseball operations in which a team endeavors to analyze the market for baseball players and buy what is undervalued and sell what is overvalued.” Baseball is a game that has been noted for tracking player value through a series of performance-based statistics. Traditionally baseball players were evaluated in three or four statistical categories, which even the most casual baseball fan has generally known. For hitters, those stats were Batting Average, Home Runs, and Runs Batted In. For pitchers, the major statistics were Wins, Losses, Earned Run Average (ERA), and, more recently, saves for relief pitchers. These statistics, it turns out, were limited in terms of the effectiveness of tracking what it takes to build a winning team.   


Beyond these traditional statistical measurements of a player’s value, baseball teams employed an extensive network of evaluators called “scouts”. These scouts were (are) usually former players or coaches whose “instincts” for the game were trusted and, in many cases, trusted even more than the limited statistical data measurements that had been used for over a century. Scouts could “tell” who would be a good player just by watching him play in the minor leagues or on high school or college baseball diamonds. They would travel around the country observing young talent and then report the findings on which players passed the “eye test” of these experienced player experts.  

In 1980, Bill James was working as a night watchman for a canning company in Kansas. James, a baseball fanatic and statistics aficionado, put together a series of pamphlets he distributed himself (pre-internet, so everything had to be printed) that offered a deeper dive into player statistics. The term for these stats became known as sabermetrics, and they looked at what data contributed to a team’s ability to score runs.  

In sabermetric statistical analysis, a player’s ability to get on base became known as their OBP or on-base percentage. This is just one crucial measurement that challenged the status quo of baseball player evaluation. Under this scenario, it doesn’t matter how a player gets on base, so a “walk” became just as important as a player’s ability to get a hit. Baseball executives and scouts found this theory outrageous and truly not the proper way to measure player talent. They also found this type of statistical evaluation a threat to their jobs.  

In 2001, Billy Beane was the Oakland A’s General Manager, a “small market” team with limited financial resources. Beane decided to employ sabermetrics to find value in players that other teams, and even his scouts, did not consider valuable. The upshot of Moneyball is the Oakland A’s put together a team with a total payroll of $33,810,000. The New York Yankees, loaded with superstar players like Derek Jeter and former A’s player Jason Giambi, carried a payroll that year of $112,287,000. In the 2001 playoffs, the A’s almost beat the mighty Yankees in what would have been a huge upset.   

The baseball world began to see that Moneyball might provide a way that small-market teams could, conceivably, compete with the big city, big payroll teams, and their enormous budgets. At the end of the 2001 season, Billy Beane was offered as General Manager for the large market Boston Red Sox. Beane turned down the job for personal reasons, and the Red Sox hired Bill James as a consultant, changing their fortunes forever. Here is a line from the closing credits of the film:  

“Billy Beane turned down the Red Sox offer of $12,500,000 and chose to stay in Oakland as the A’s General Manager. Two years later, the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, embracing the philosophy championed in Oakland.”   

The season’s final game was October 3rd, 2021, when the MLB playoff contenders were finally decided. Looking around Major League Baseball, we find that the advanced metrics that Bill James developed in 1980 and that Billy Beane implemented back in 2001 are being used to one extent or another by almost every team in baseball, both small market and large.  

The MLB playoffs are now under way. Let’s look at four teams that made the playoffs this year and check out how they have employed aspects of the advanced metrics that now influence player evaluation and acquisition today. These teams fall into two categories: “big market” and “small market.” Both use advanced analytics to put their teams together. We’ll also examine each team’s 2021 payroll.   


Big Market Teams  

San Francisco Giants (107-55)  

The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in 5 years, collecting trophies in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Before this title run, the Giants were built on a traditional scouting and player evaluation model. The success they enjoyed during their five-year run gave the city of San Francisco a jolt of energy and enthusiasm. The home ballpark where the Giants played was sold out for a National League record 530 games between 2010 and 2017. The Giants front office enthusiastically rewarded its World Series heroes with generous contracts to keep the winning formula together. In 2016, the Giants had an incredible first half of the season but struggled down the stretch, barely making the playoffs. They lost that year to the eventual World Champion Chicago Cubs and then went on a terrible three-year skid from 2017-2019 in which they had multiple non-productive, bloated contracts they had given to some of their World Series stars. The Giants had also given up many of their young prospects to keep winning “now.”   

In November of 2018, the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi to be its General Manager. Zaidi is considered an advanced metric genius and had worked closely with Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s from 2011-2014. Zaidi was later hired by the Dodgers, where he worked from 2014-2017 as assistant General Manager and brought in his knowledge of advanced statistics and player evaluation. Since 2018, the Giants have used the principles of Moneyball to improve their minor league personnel and overall organizational player depth. San Francisco should have the budget to increase its 2021 payroll by $161,760,000 to retain or attract more players next year as a big-money market team.  

The consensus among “experts” going into the 2021 season estimated that the Giants would win 72 games and not make the playoffs. Using the advanced analytics at which he is so adept, Farhan Zaidi and his team turned around the Giants’ fortunes more quickly than anyone could have predicted. Zaidi has been particularly effective in acquiring “depth pieces” in trades with other teams.   

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56)   

The Dodgers are the current defending World Champions. They won the Covid-shortened 2020, 60-game season World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays (see below). Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman, has been incorporating Moneyball for years, despite having the biggest payroll in baseball this season. Friedman was previously the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, who still use Moneyball principles to compete against big market franchises in the American League Eastern Division. The Dodgers have benefitted from advanced analytics to find both major league and organizational minor league personnel depth. Their skill has created a seemingly endless stream of outstanding players, supporting the superstars on their roster. Analytics proved important when injuries occur and to add depth to the lineup they put out every day. The Dodgers’ total payroll in 2021 is $267,000,000, which exceeds the “competitive balance tax” (a.k.a., the salary cap) of $210,000,000 by $57,000,000.   

The Dodgers have work to do to reduce payroll in 2022, and they should be able to accomplish this as they have many contracts coming off their payroll in 2022. This year, the Dodgers went “all in” payroll-wise, even exceeding the payroll of perennial number one spender, the New York Yankees ($203,300,000 in 2021). Despite tying a franchise record with 106 wins this season, L.A. finds itself in a one-game, elimination wildcard playoff with the St. Louis Cardinals. No one, including the Giants themselves, could have predicted that San Francisco would win 107 games to win the National League’s Western Division.  

Small Market Teams  

Tampa Bay Rays (100-62)  

The Tampa Bay Rays followed the Oakland A’s model in the mid-2000s and, by all accounts, have perfected the money ball formula. The Rays have the lowest payroll of any 2021 playoff team at $70,836,000. The Rays lost game 7 of the 2020 World Series to the Dodgers, and this was a closely contested series that many believe they could have easily won. The Rays challenged the big market Yankees and Red Sox every year, often besting them. Tampa Bay is very much like the Oakland A’s. Once a player, position or pitcher, achieves some notoriety, that player will often leave Tampa for greener pastures. The Rays minor league system is so loaded that they always have a replacement player that performs better than the departing piece.   

Tampa Bay has been so good for so long at “Moneyball” that they often lose their front office executives to other teams. The Rays also know how to find capable replacements in their executive suites because this franchise keeps outperforming its payroll year after year. It will be interesting to see whether Tampa can get over the top and win it all this year with its comparatively low payroll.  

Milwaukee Brewers (95-67)  

The Milwaukee Brewers’ have the lowest payroll of any playoff team in the National League and their success on the field has been trending upward over the past several seasons. The Brewers’ 2021 payroll checks in at $97,377,000. The Brewers’ G.M. is David Stearns, who was hired at the age of 30 in 2015. Stearns is a Harvard graduate who came to Milwaukee from the Houston Astros statistical analysis department. The Astros went through a complete teardown and turned around its fortunes with a series of playoff appearances. Still, they produced a World Series win over the Dodgers in 2017. David Stearns still oversees the Brewers’ resurgence through a complete rebuilding of its players both at the MLB level and in the minors as well. From 1970-2017, the Milwaukee Brewers appeared in the playoffs four times. From 2018-2021, the Brewers have appeared in the playoffs four times. Enough said.  


The fact that big market and small market teams alike now incorporate the key aspects of statistical analysis and buying what is undervalued and selling what is overvalued demonstrates that the principles of Moneyball aren’t just about saving money. The Giants, Dodgers, and other large-market teams use these principles to create efficiencies. When used properly, these efficiencies enable teams to create organizational player depth that can keep a franchise winning year after year. Twenty years later, Moneyball is here to stay.   

Weighted Averages & Business

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